Billie Holiday, 1915-1959

  • Billie-Holiday-WWP

Woman Category: MusicWoman Tags: African-American Women, NYC Women, and Singer

  • HerStory

    One of the most influential jazz vocalists of all time.

    Born as Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia. Her mother, Sadie, who was 19 and unmarried when she was pregnant with Billie, was evicted from her parents’ home, and her supposed father, Clarence Holiday, abandoned them to become a jazz musician. In her early years, she was raised mostly by her mother’s half-sister’s mother in law, while her mother worked at transportation jobs. Holiday frequently skipped school, and at the age of 9, was brought before the juvenile court for truancy. She was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd – a facility for troubled African-American girls, where she spent 9 months at first and brought again after escaping raping attempt.
    At 12, she began working, cleaning the kitchen and bathroom floors at her neighbors’ houses, and running errands in a brothel. Two years later, she joined her mother in NYC, where they both worked as prostitutes, at age 14, she earned $5 a client. After the brothel was raided, Holiday and her mother were sent to prison, and she was released after 6 months. During those difficult years, Holiday found comfort in music, especially Louis Armstrong’s and Bessie Smith’s.
    At the age of 15, Holiday began singing at local clubs in Harlem. With no technical voice training or the ability to read music, she made a great impression on the tenor saxophone player, Kenneth Hollan, they teamed up and for 3 years performed together in various clubs. At 18, she was discovered by the record producer John Hammond, who arranged for her to record vocals for “The King of Swing,” Benny Goodman. They record together with the song “Riffin’ the Scotch,” which made the Top Ten Hit List of 1934. A year later, she signed with the Brunswick record label to record swing style pop tunes with the pianist Teddy Wilson. Holiday’s improvisations, fitting the melody to the emotions, were considered revolutionary at the time, and the single “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” made her famous. Soon after, she appeared alongside Duke Ellington in the film “Symphony in Black.”
    At 22, Holiday became the vocalist of the Count Basie’s band, where she was able to choose which song to sing and developed her stage persona of a broken-hearted woman. After she got fired from the band, she joined Artie Shaw’s orchestra and became one of the first black woman vocalists to be a part of a white orchestra. While touring in the segregated south, Holiday suffered from racism and frequently heckled by the audience. She quit the tour after she was asked in a hotel to use the service elevator and not the passenger elevator like the rest of the orchestra members.
    She started to perform as a soloist at Café Society in NYC, where she debuted two of her most recognized songs “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit,” the latter was about the lynching of African-Americans in the South, and it was banned on some radio stations for being too controversial.
    Holiday was known for her drinking habits, and after marrying her first husband, James Monroe, she started smoking opium as well. The marriage didn’t last long, and a few years later, she started using heroin. Despite her drug abuse, Holiday kept performing and appearing in various films. At 32, she was arrested for narcotics possession, and even though she wasn’t allowed to perform in clubs because of her conviction, she performed in concert halls, recorded albums, and toured Europe. At age 44, Holiday performed for the last time; she died soon after as a result of heart and liver problems caused by alcohol and drug abuse. More than 3,000 people attended her funeral.
    Throughout her life, Billie Holiday released 38 charting singles, recorded 20 records, appeared in 4 movies, and more than 30 TV shows. To this day, she is considered one of the best jazz vocalists of all time, influencing other musicians with her heart touching voice.

    “No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music”

    “No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • Her Nickname was “Lady Day.”
    • Her stage name “Billie Holiday” combined from her favorite actress Billie Dove’s first name and her probable father, Clarence Holiday’s last name.
    • Her second husband was a Mafia enforcer.
    • Her autobiography was made into the film “Lady Sings the Blues,” with Diana Ross playing Holiday.
    • The song “Angel of Harlem” by U2 pays tribute to her.
    • She was one of Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin’s main musical influences.
    • A statue commemorating her was erected in Baltimore.
  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * Her music CDs
    * Books she wrote
    * Books about her


    * Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
    * Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Billie Holiday - Blue Moon (1952)

    Free sheet music:

  • Photo credit - WWP team